The breathtaking depth of Hank Williams’ catalog means that distilling his best songs into a single playlist of 20 tunes is a tall order, such was the mark he left as one of the true pioneers of country music.
A legend in six years
Williams paid his dues as a country hopeful for several years before making his studio debut, firstly for the Sterling label, and then at the label where he made such an indelible mark, MGM Records. That late breakthrough, and his untimely demise from alcohol and drug abuse at the criminally early age of 29, meant that Williams’ recording career lasted for less than six years.
Williams was especially influenced in his early years by one of the great country stars of the 1940s, Roy Acuff. (He later joked that because there already was a Roy Acuff, he started singing like Hank Williams.) But he could also be quite dismissive about any categorization of his style. “I don’t know what you mean by country music,” he once said. “I just make music the way I know how.”
Our playlist of Hank Williams’ best songs begins with one of his early sides for Sterling, “Honky Tonkin’,” before launching into his first country chart success from 1947, the rousing “Move It On Over.” There are nine No. 1 country hits in this list of songs, tunes that have attracted hundreds of cover versions from notable names in pop, rock, and R&B.
Just a few examples: “Jambalaya (On The Bayou),” which topped the country chart for Hank in 1952, became a staple for the Carpenters a generation later; “Lovesick Blues” was cut by everyone from Patsy Cline to Merle Haggard and was a UK No. 1 for Frank Ifield; and the heartbreaking “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” became associated with recording giants from Johnny Cash to Little Richard. The list goes on, from “Cold, Cold Heart” to “There’s A Tear In My Beer.”
The playlist concludes with a song written and recorded with a degree of black humor by Williams late in 1952, and which had started its chart climb just before he passed away on New Year’s Day, 1953. “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” was not just darkly prophetic, it typified the combination of smart, searing lyrics, yearning vocals, and superb playing that made Hank Williams an absolute musical one-off.
Listen to the best Hank Williams songs on Spotify.